The term ‘angry young man’ became synonymous with Amitabh Bachchan in 1973 after his role in Zanjeer and subsequent films like Deewar, Kaala Patthar, Trishul, further strengthened his image as a man who was wronged by the system and decided to go against the law and order, just so he could survive in a dog-eating dog world. But decades before Amitabh Bachchan made the anti-hero character a mass favorite, the type of character was seen in Nitin Bose’s film Gunga Jumna. Here, Dilip Kumar played Gunga, the man who got the end of the stick and has to make bad choices in order to be able to feed his family.
Gunga Jumna is the story of two brothers – Gunga, played by Dilip Kumar and Jumna, played by Nasir Khan. The two had a difficult childhood but Gunga, the older brother, always made sure that Jumna got the best resources to study. They lose their mother at a young age so Gunga has taken on the responsibility of a parent here. Circumstances pull them in different directions and Gunga ends up becoming a dacoit, while Jumna becomes a police officer. If you are wondering if this strikingly resembles Deewar, then you are not wrong. By Salim Khan’s own admission, Salim-Javed (the writers of Deewar) drew inspiration from Gunga Jumna and Mother India to write Deewar. During a Whistling Woods conversation with Subhash Ghai, Salim Khan had shared, “While writing Deewar, we were influenced by two films – Mother India and Gunga Jumna. Javed Akhtar also brought up the idea of the angry young man during a conversation during Jaipur Lit Fest in 2017 where he also touched on the origins of this character existing in Gunga (from Gunga Jumna) and Birju (from Mother India) .
Dilip Kumar, who also wrote the film, was keenly aware that audiences might find it difficult to root themselves in a morally dubious character, so he had to give them enough reasons to explain his decisions. “If the character was on the wrong side of the law like in Gunga Jumna, it was important for me to let the viewer know why the character led a lawless life and to make them pay the penalty. Gunga therefore has no respite from the law when he tries to explain that he was the victim of a trap set by the zamindar. When I wrote the story / script my brother Nasir, for whose return the photo was taken, told me I was making a mistake. He thought people wouldn’t like to see me as a bandit and an offender, ”he told Filmfare in a 2013 interview.
Gunga Jumna eventually became the Bibles of 1970s movies where the brothers often found themselves on the other side of the law. The Dacoit genre, which was also very present in Hindi cinema at this time, also found its roots through this film. “Gunga Jumna’s success is the inspiration she provided to writers to give the hero a flaw or what you would call a negative undertone,” Dilip Kumar had said.
Gunga Jumna is a classic example of a story that pits evil against good but doesn’t put them in black and white boxes. Instead, it presents a nuanced story of someone choosing the wrong path when faced with an ethical conundrum. Gunga honestly earns a living and apparently leads a comfortable life, but when he slaps the local zamindar while trying to rape a woman, the zamindar marks Gunga as his target. He is tricked for theft, is imprisoned, then boycotted by his own village. So much so that at one point, Gunga struggles to survive because he hasn’t eaten in days. When he learns that his brother lives in the streets of the city because he did not have the money to support himself, Gunga breaks down and decides to join a gang of dacoits.
In a crucial scene near the end of the film, a police officer tells Gunga that he is being punished for his sins. He breaks down and, with tears in his eyes, says he’s well aware of his wrongdoing, but what was he supposed to do in a society that favors the rich and is manipulated by corruption.
Dilip Kumar’s performance in Gunga Jumna is often cited as one of the late actor’s best acts. In fact, Amitabh Bachchan also often said that Dilip Kumar’s performance in this film was like a lesson to him. Its Awadhi dialect has surprised audiences and critics around the world. In a 2013 interview with Filmfare, Dilip Kumar shared that when Gunga Jumna was screened in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, Boston and Cairo, he was “besieged by movie critics who were intrigued by my acting and were curious. to know how much research had been done. into it.”
Coming out of Gunga Jumna, Hindi cinema stood up for traditional heroes, who were mere benefactors and often chose the morally right path when faced with a dilemma. Gunga Jumna changed that, and that change sparked a revolution in our understanding of what a hero could be. Of course, the definition of a hero has changed over the years, but Gunga Jumna is one of the first examples who challenged the stereotype.